Career diplomat John Hoover spent more than a year cooling his heels in suburban Washington as he waited for the Senate to confirm him as the new ambassador to Sierra Leone. He finally was confirmed on Sept. 11 and reached the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown on Oct. 1 — smack in the middle of the Ebola epidemic.
Hoover, 54, took charge at an embassy operating in a crisis mode, and under an evacuation order that had separated many staffers from spouses and children who had returned to the United States.
“There’s real hardship,” Hoover said in a telephone interview. “It’s almost like a military deployment in that we’re all separated from our families, and that’s tough. Despite that, morale is high.”
He sees progress in that battle in the eastern part of Sierra Leone, but the epidemic is flaring in the western part of the country. Sierra Leone is the country with the highest infection rate, according to the World Health Organization’s most recent update. About 70 employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have deployed to Sierra Leone to fight Ebola. The U.S. military has focused on neighboring Liberia; Britain has a leading role in Sierra Leone.
“The bad news is that the virus has kind of shifted west as people have moved around the country. It’s still on an exponential rise in the western area, the area that includes Freetown,” he said.
As if to underscore the point, on Saturday, a Sierra Leonean surgeon, Martin Salia, 44, who was working in Freetown, was flown to Nebraska for treatment for Ebola. Salia divides his time between working in his native country and living in Prince George’s County with his wife and two children.
Hoover noted that the response to the epidemic in Sierra Leone poses a management challenge, and he sees a need to “sharpen coordination.”
“There are a great deal of players on the ground,” Hoover said. “Lots of people doing lots of things. It’s a question of sharpening that coordination so that we’re not missing gaps and not overlapping and tripping over one another.”
Hoover grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, graduated from Princeton, and eventually became a foreign service officer, serving in China, Kenya, Uganda and at the State Department in Washington in the Africa bureau.
Hoover’s wife, Kathy, stayed in the United States when he journeyed to Sierra Leone (their two children are adults), but she hopes to be able to join him in the coming year.
He said that, even with Ebola lurking, Freetown is a bustling city “where lush mountains descend to the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean.”
A new, modern embassy opened in 2006 in a hilly area on the southern edge of the city, at the base of Leicester Peak, the highest point in Freetown. After work every Thursday, the American and national staffers hike up the peak for exercise and to enjoy the spectacular view, he said.
One of the big worries for the American Embassy staffers is how they’ll be treated when they return to the United States.
They’re worried, Hoover said, about the “social stigma” of coming from an Ebola-afflicted country. He’s anxious about his own return in January to attend his older son’s wedding; some guests might be uneasy about being around someone who’s just come from West Africa.
“It’s not that easy to get it,” he said. “I think people lose sight of that reality and tend to respond a little hysterically to this.”